English version

Debt as a social relationship:
limit or condition of liberty?

International conference
Free entrance

Date: Thursday 10th and Friday 11th of December, 2015
Place: Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, France Bâtiment T, salle TR11 (Download the campus plan)

The conference is organized within the context of the GEREP and supported by the Sophiapol (Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense), the ISP (Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense), the Labex TEPSIS and the MAPP (Université de Poitiers).


Thursday 10th december 2015


Welcome coffee and opening speech


Debt and social link
Chair: Magali Bessone

Cédric Rio (CMH) & Pierre Crétois (Sophiapol)
Est-il conséquent de mobiliser le concept de « dette sociale » dans une approche de la justice libérale ?

Samuel Le Quitte (Université Rennes I)
Que signifie « être-en-dette » ? Au croisement de la phénoménologie et des sciences sociales

Elettra Stimilli (Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa-Firenze)
Économie de la dette et religion



Debt and intergenerational justice
Chair: Cédric Rio

Antoine Verret-Hamelin (Université Laval)
Repenser la réciprocité intergénérationnelle

Delphine Pouchain (Sciences Po Lille)
La dette écologique : rapport social et naturel ou négation d’une dépendance ?


Debt, domination and resistance (1)
Chair: Pierre Crétois

Ilaria Bertazzi (Università degli studi di Torino)
A challenge to economic theory: the case of debtors movements

Jean François Bissonnette (Sophiapol)
Le cadeau empoisonné: pour une pharmacologie de la dette


Conversation with Maurizio Lazzarato

Friday 11th december 2015


Micropolitics of the debt
Chair: Stéphanie Roza

Edoardo Ferlazzo (EHESS)
La construction politique de la gestion de l’endettement local

Roberta Rubino (EHESS/IMAF)
La part de la dette dans le commerce équitable

 Pause déjeuner


Public debt in the history of ideas
Chair: Arnault Skornicki

Clément Coste (Université Lyon III)
Dette perpétuelle et conversion des rentes. L’approche saint-simonienne de la dette publique et de son financement

Julia Christ (Goethe Universität Frankfurt)
La genèse de la nation à partir de la dette


Debt, domination and resistance (2)
Chair: Jean-François Bissonnette

Louis Carré (Université libre de Bruxelles)
La dette comme rapport politique

Federica Gregoratto (Universität St.Gallen)
The Making of the Indebted Woman: Interdependence, Guilt and Neoliberal Gender Identities


Conference by Patrick Saurin
Contre le système-dette, annulons les dettes illégales, illégitimes, odieuses et insoutenables





The very concept of debt, either public or private, characterizes a whole set of social relationships which cannot be considered in a neutral way. The aim of this conference is to question the presuppositions underlying the different conceptions of debt and indebtedness, in order to understand how they criss-cross each other and how they are put into practice. How can we characterize the distinct social relationships that develop under the pressure of the debt? This issue refers to arguments that put into question some insufficiently analysed assumptions about the notion of debt and, more broadly, the future of our societies and the social links it maintains within its bosom.

Indebtedness, understood as the fact of being indebted, usually refers to two circumstances: being economically in debt, and the debt one owes towards others or society as a whole (Graeber, 2011).

In economic terms, debt is theoretically the result of a contract between two persons or institutions who are assumed to be able to choose with sufficient knowledge and without constraint. These relations can exist between individuals or between an individual and financial organizations (banks, credit agencies, etc.), but they can also involve local communities or states indebted to other states or international organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank. In any case, those in debt are the poorer individuals or institutions, who owe those who possess the capital; those in debt have to borrow their missing assets and in doing so add a liability to their patrimony.

This conception of debt is double-sided because it authorizes a system of domination (debt is an injunction to pay), but it also paradoxically creates a system of unbinding. According to its legal and economical meanings, it is possible to pay off a debt and then to be considered unbound and obliged to no one. Consequently, debt is paradoxically at the same time a tool for harsh discipline (‘you shall pay your debts’) and a vehicle for social atomism once people are liberated from it. But in a more holistic and non-utilitarian approach, debt is seen as inexhaustible: it can never be paid off and one will always be obliged towards society. Moreover, our membership in society is experienced through giving oneself to it.

This holistic point of view is developed by sociology and political theory, and articulates the concept of debt with the basic intuition of an accountability disseminated through society, which is a mandatory giving back to the whole society and its members of what has been received. The idea that all societies harbour specific forms of reciprocity (Barry, 1991) animates numerous theories, like the maussian gift / counter-gift; the positivism according to Auguste Comte (‘We are born loaded with all kinds of obligations, towards our predecessors, our successors and our contemporaries’ in Catéchisme positiviste, 1852); the solidarism of Léon Bourgeois; the Rawlsian theory of justice as fairness or David Gauthier’s theory of mutual advantage. Starting from distinct positions, these thinkers underline the basic idea that everyone owes their own situation to efforts made by past generations and/or other actual members of the society. These efforts are building and preserving those political and social institutions that guarantee the common good or interest.

If we go even further in the holistic argument, we should consider the possibility that the very notion of debt has no meaning at all and must be fully denied. Only social structures and power balances produce effects on individual relationships. Therefore, the starting point is the whole and not the parts. Individual relations are not the starting point, even if they seem to be built on mutual agreement, but the structures are, and these generate domination by forcing some to submit to others using different processes such as debt. Even starting from different positions a number of different thinkers have reached the same conclusion, like for instance the French lawyer Duguit who advocated going beyond the distinction between private and public law. He defined law as an all-encompassing social science, and refused the individualist conception of debt out of sociological concerns. Instead, debt was an objective relation founded on the ‘rule of law’ understood as social reality (Duguit, 1923).

So, on the one hand, to be indebted entails a limitation of freedom, and, on the other, leads to acknowledging that freedom necessitates the input of others to be guaranteed. How should we understand debt? Should we systematically condemn the relationships implied by debt or should we praise them?

Without any claim to totality, papers will be welcomed that deal with these three complementary axes:

      • We wish to initiate a normative reflexion on the legitimacy of financial indebtedness, in both national and international terms. From the creditor’s standpoint, it firstly appears that the debt should be reimbursed. It seems justified to ask the debtors to give back the amount they borrowed because they pledged to do so by contract. Furthermore, from the debtor’s standpoint, some projects could not be carried out without external support. But some points still have to be questioned, such as the legitimacy of practices related to debt (the interest rate, the conditionality in specific cases of international loans, the necessity of reimbursing debts contracted by past generations or leaders with contested representativeness, etc.), but also the relationship between creditor and debtor (vulnerability and even guilt from the debtor, domination of the creditor over him etc.). In doing so, we wish to question the legitimacy of financial debt itself, echoing the growth of social movements during the last few years, from Occupy Wall Street to the Spanish Indignados who tried to repoliticize debt and to denounce a new type of domination which they called “creditocracy” (Ross, 2014). This refers both to Marxist critics of public debt and to very concrete actual issues, especially in Europe, with the recent electoral victory of the Greek party Syriza who made the cancelling of public debt central to its campaign. The future will necessarily be a period of field experiments, which will have to be questioned from economical, philosophical and political approaches. Are such practices legitimate? Do we need to distinguish between ‘justified’ debts and ‘injustified’ ones? If so, according to which criteria? Is it acceptable to assimilate public and private debt? How can we understand the specifics of public debt, particularly regarding the sovereign debt crisis?

      • Using the insights of critical social philosophy, it will be important to interrogate the measure to which debt, understood in economic and legal terms, could be an unbinding link, distinctive of individualistic and liberal societies. If a debt can always be paid off, the individual can be released from any obligation. Defining obligation as a process between individuals that can be forgiven enables an individualistic approach to society, where individuals are understood as first and foremost unbound beings. So they can always return back to this original unbound state with a single voluntary individual act. This conception of sociability stands very far from the holistic definition of society as multiple and informal accountabilities.

      • From a more anthropological approach, we wish to think about debt understood as social accountability. If we acknowledge such accountability towards society and its members, this implies that our freedom and opportunities do not depend upon personal merit but rather the society in which we are living. Economic and social success and even individual autonomy could not be guaranteed except without the support of society. In that case we are all indebted, whether rich or poor. Some have criticized this point and assert that acknowledging such indebtedness would undermine the very possibility of a self-made man, who owes ‘nothing to anyone’; an autonomous subject whose rule of action will only depend on himself, his merit and his efforts (Nozick, 2008). This last idea matches the main strategy at work in actual social policies which prefer targeted-aids over universalist systems. Thus, it tends to create a separation between contributors and recipients, which are designated as “assisted people” (Duvoux, 2012). Acknoweldging such social debt contradicts the mainstream individualism of our societies which could be considered a distinctive feature of neoliberal systems (Lazzaratto, 2011), to the extent that indebtedness is negatively understood by the recipients themselves. These are the consequences of a fundamental question: are we truly indebted to society and its members? If so, what is really implied by this statement and how can we justify fully its results?


Brian Barry, “Justice as Reciprocity”, in Liberty and Justice, Essays in Political Theory 2, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 211-241.
Léon Bourgeois, Solidarité [1912], 7e édition, Villeneuve d’Ascq, Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 1998
François Chesnais, Les dettes illégitimes, Paris, Raisons d’agir, 2011
Léon Duguit, Traité de droit constitutionnel, 2e éd., t. I, Paris, de Boccard, 1923.
Nicolas Duvoux, Le nouvel âge de la solidarité. Pauvreté, précarité et politiques publiques, Paris, Seuil, La République des idées, 2012
David Graeber, Debt. The First 5000 Years, Brooklyn, New York, Melville House Publishing, 2011
David Gauthier, Morals by agreement, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986
Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of the Indebted Man. Essay on the Neoliberal Condition, [2011]Los Angeles, Semiotext(e), 2012
Marcel Mauss, The Gift : Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies[1923-1924], Martino Fine Books, 2011, 11e édition, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 2006, p. 143-279
Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia [1974], New York, Basic Books, 2006
John Rawls,A Theory of Justice [1971], Harvard University Press, 1999
Andrew Ross, Creditocracy: And the Case for Debt Refusal, OR Books, 2014

Scientific Committee: Serge Audier (Université Paris 4 – Sorbonne), Jérémie Barthas (CNRS), Magali Bessone (Université Rennes 1), Vincent Bourdeau (Université de Franche-Comté), Alain Caillé (Université Paris-Ouest Nanterre La Défense), Esther Jeffers (Université Paris VIII – Vincennes St-Denis, Stéphane Haber (Université Paris-Ouest Nanterre La Défense), Christian Lazzeri (Université Paris-Ouest Nanterre La Défense).

Organizing committee: Pierre Crétois (Université de Tours) ; Naël Desaldeleer (Université de Poitiers) ; Caroline Guibet-Lafaye (Centre Maurice Halbwachs, CNRS) ; Cédric Rio (Centre Maurice Halbwachs, CNRS) ; Stéphanie Roza (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne) ; Jean-François Bissonnette (Université Paris-Ouest Nanterre La Défense) ; Arnault Skornicki (Université Paris-Ouest Nanterre La Défense).

Propositions will be sent in digital format (500 words max., in .doc or .pdf) at colloque.dette(at)gmail.com before the 15th of July, 2015

How to get there ?

By car

Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La défense
200 avenue de la République
92001 Nanterre Cedex
Download the plan

By the RER

Take the RER line A to Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Stop at station « Nanterre-Université ». From the station « Châtelet / Les Halles » or « Auber », it is a 10 to 15 min trip.

By train

Take the train at gare Saint-Lazare, to « Nanterre-Université ». Stop at station « Nanterre-Université » (15 min)

By bus

Stop ‘Nanterre-Université’ of :
– line 367 « Rueil Malmaison RER – Pont de Bezons »
– line 304 « Nanterre Place de la Boule – G.Péri Asnières Gennevilliers »
– line 357 « Cimetière Parc du Mont Valérien – Nanterre Place des Muguets »

Stop ‘Université Paris X’ of :
– line 378 « Nanterre Ville RER – Asnières Gennevilliers Les Courtilles »


For any complementary question, please write to colloque.dette(at)gmail.com.

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